Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley partnered with Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) today to introduce the bipartisan Civilian Conservation Center Enhancement Act of 2023. This legislation directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) to offer specialized training, specifically wildland firefighter training, to Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center students. This would create a pipeline for young people to enter into careers fighting fires and caring for public lands.

Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mike Rounds (R-SD), and Angus King (I-ME) are original cosponsors of this legislation.

“As climate chaos makes our wildfire seasons longer and hotter, it’s essential that we have enough wildland firefighters available to meet the moment,” Merkley said. “Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers can play such an important role in training new firefighters and helping get more folks into the hiring pipeline. In Oregon, these programs not only make our communities safer by reducing the risk of severe wildfires, but also provide valuable job training for at-risk youth in rural areas. I look forward to working with Senator Daines to ensure these centers, students, and programs are further supported to reduce wildfire threats, bolster public health, and foster meaningful job opportunities.”

“Montana faces devastating wildfires season after season and the forestry sector continues to face labor shortages, we need to be doing everything we can to ensure we have an experienced team of wildland firefighters to protect our local communities,” Daines said. “Investing in our Montana Job Corps Centers to help train and prepare young Montanans to enter this field is a great way to do that. By supporting these centers, expanding their forestry curriculum, and empowering students with a pipeline to long-term careers, we can both help create more job opportunities for young Montanans and protect our communities from fires.”

The Job Corps is the nation’s largest job training and education program for students from 16 to 24 years of age. The U.S. Forest Service operates 24 Civilian Conservation Centers (CCCs) nationwide under this program—including three in Oregon and two in Montana—which are proving vital in the fight to protect national forests and grasslands from wildfires. Recent data released by the U.S. Department of Labor, which leads the Job Corps, shows CCC students provided 204,633 total hours of support to federal firefighters in 2022—a 20 percent increase over the previous year.

The Civilian Conservation Center Enhancement Act of 2023 would further build on this critical program by setting a goal for both the USDA and the DOI to hire 300 students a year and provide a direct hire authority specific to CCC graduates to expedite that process. It would also create a pilot program to use students at CCCs to address the lack of workforce housing for wildland firefighters.

Senators Merkley and Daines have long been champions to protect and advance Job Corps CCCs. In 2019, they led the bipartisan effort to save the program when it was targeted for termination under the Trump administration. And last year, they sent a letter to the Secretaries of the Department of Labor, Department of Agriculture, and Department of the Interior urging them to make greater use of CCCs to meet the needs of wildland firefighter and wood products workforce development, recruitment, and retention challenges. The move would better position this critical workforce to prevent and respond to wildfire events.

Throughout the 118th Congress, Senators Merkley and Daines will continue to work to strengthen the wildland firefighting workforce and push to include their Civilian Conservation Center Enhancement Act in the 2023 farm bill. 

The bill is endorsed by the National Job Corps Association, the National Federation of Federal Employees, the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, and the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, Western Fire Chiefs Association, Forest Resources Association, and The Nature Conservancy.

Final bill text can be found here.

A one page summary of the bill can be found here.